EU Leaders and May Are Now Best Friends and That Is a Problem

(Bloomberg) -- The British prime minister and the European Union are learning to dance.

In the space of 24 hours, Theresa May was jeered in Parliament after suffering a major defeat on her Brexit laws in London, and then applauded by European leaders who hailed her as a “tough” and “formidable” negotiator in Brussels.

The display of appreciation came at a summit dinner on Thursday night after May filled them in on her ambitions for the next leap in Brexit talks.

Throughout recent weeks, EU officials and leaders have gone out of their way to praise May’s handling of the U.K.’s withdrawal negotiations. Treading lightly, they have wanted to ensure she wasn’t humiliated as she increased her offer to pay more for the divorce.

Why? The EU sees May is vulnerable to being toppled at home and that’s the last thing they want. There’s the recent memory of the dramatic week that saw a deal almost slip through her grasp. Then on the eve of her arrival in Brussels, she suffered an embarrassing defeat in the House of Commons at the hands of Conservative rebels.

The EU wants to make progress in the negotiations and can’t afford May to be replaced by a an ardent Brexit campaigner like Boris Johnson. The disruption of another U.K. election, should May’s government collapse, would almost certainly spell chaos for the negotiating process.

The danger is taking the praise too far. With every warm word, European officials feed the narrative among euroskeptic Tories that she’s caved in.

Hardliners will argue that it’s only because May has agreed to pay a 39 billion-euro ($46 billion) exit bill --and to allow the European Court of Justice a long-term role in the British legal system --that she’s so popular in Brussels.

For a British prime minister, there’s a political risk in Brexit negotiations going too well.

©2017 Bloomberg L.P.